Dear Businesslady: Vocation Or Panic?

Dear Businesslady: Vocation Or Panic?

by Courtney C.W. Guerra.

Dear Businesslady,

I feel like I'm at a crossroads in my career while also being forced onto one path. For context, about a decade ago I wrecked my mental health getting a library science degree, then did some low-paying childcare work for a while to recover from that, and then about five years ago I finally embarked on my library career. I don't know how much you know about the world of libraries these days, but it's...not great. Fast-forward to six months ago, I *love* the youth literacy parts of the job, but am powerfully burnt out trying to be a social worker with no social work training and by being screamed at, harassed, etc. Then several big changes come together in my personal life at once: I get life-changing quality of life surgery, get engaged, quit my job, and move cross-country to finally live in the same place as my fiancé. I'm extremely pleased with all of that on a personal level.

Professionally though, it's put me at a bit of a crux. Competition for librarian positions in my new region is quite competitive. I interviewed for three open positions and got none of them, but I'm not sure I wanted any of them anyway? I'd just go right back to the same problems. I Initially studied archiving in grad school, and part of me yearns for the peace an underground bunker of records would provide, but those sorts of positions are limited, competition is even fiercer, and "my last 8 years of professional experience is in youth services, but I'd be a great archivist trust me" is a hard sell. I applied for one such position and didn't even get an interview.

My resume is great, if unique, for childcare, and indeed I'm currently working a childcare gig that pays the bills, but it's work with high-needs kids, and I suspect I'll be burnt out again in another year or two doing it. I sometimes consider being a teacher or school librarian, but that's also a burnout-heavy profession, and even the thought of going back to school for a teacher's certificate gives me panic attacks. And if things go to plan and my fiancé and I have a kid in the next few years, will I even want to be devoting so much of my childcare energy to my work instead of my kid?

I especially think about going into the private sector, doing some sort of banal office gig, but I've never done that before and I don't know how I' Or what sort I'd pursue? There must be ones I would excel at, I have a masters degree in information science, but how do I get my foot in the door when my resume is mostly a weird hodgepodge of library and/or childcare work?

TL;DR I feel trapped by a resume that's best suited to jobs that burn me out. How do I find a new path?


A Burnt-Out Librarian

Dear (Onetime) Librarian,

I was excited to get your letter after my last column, because they’re two different angles on “what a career is supposed to be.” While your question touches on similar issues—how to find a job that supports you without wringing out every ounce of your energy—there’s also this notion of a career trajectory (or arc, or a path, or some other figure of linearity) that is clearly on your mind. There’s a lot of cultural messaging that suggests that at some point in adulthood we’ll find ourselves chugging happily along the train track of professional success, having embarked at the appropriate station with a coherent destination up ahead.

I imagine that feeling is even more pronounced if your education included training for a specific vocation. Personally, I did nothing of the sort. I spent most of my teens and early 20s telling people that being an English major would allow me to pursue my goal of becoming a high school English teacher—which was a great way to get people to shut up about how it was a “useless” degree—and then right at the point when I needed to enroll in a teacher certification program I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t want to do that at all. So, solidarity high-five on looking at the opportunity to do teacher training and then running away in a panic instead. 

I went from a very clearly defined—and naysayer-silencing—career aspiration to the terrifying yet freeingly open-ended “I must find some way to trade my skills for money.” (I also have a bachelor’s in visual arts, another famously lucrative field.) Yet somehow I managed to find a series of stepping stones from “first and only job to hire me fresh out of college” to “position that feels like it constitutes a career.” It helped, probably, that my expectations for enjoying my work or finding any creative or intellectual fulfillment from it were basement-level low, so as glimmers of things I found appealing started showing up in my job description, I took them as pleasant surprises. It wasn’t until about six years after graduation that I started feeling truly happy with what I was doing.

I narrate all this as an object lesson that a patchy or nonlinear resume is not necessarily an impediment to a satisfying job situation. And while there are a lot of differences in our respective professional backgrounds (I’ve never studied library science or worked in paid childcare settings beyond adolescent babysitting), a “banal office gig” was also what I seized on as a way to support myself after graduation. It’s not for everyone, but from what I can glean of your skillset it seems like a good fit for you too.

In fact, while I generally shy away from suggesting specific job industries in these columns, I’m going to give you a concrete recommendation for your next move: I think you should look for admin jobs in academia. (That is where I myself work, and it is definitely not for everyone! And yet.) While I certainly wouldn’t tell you to rule out appealing positions in other fields, there are a few reasons I think higher ed could be a good environment for you. It’s full of people whose education trained them for one job—most likely getting an MA or PhD with an eye on becoming a professor, but plenty of MLIS alumni too—who ended up doing something else entirely. It’s also a setting where deep, formal education is valued, even if it’s not directly related to the work being done. And, finally, it’s a place with a lot of people you might call “a character.” Or perhaps “a challenging personality” depending on the day and how patient you’re being. (Other less diplomatic descriptors come to mind too but I would never type them up in a public setting.) Whenever I’m part of the interview process for university-admin positions, I take a moment to gauge a candidate’s capacity to deal with the distinctive personnel that populate the ivory tower, noting that in some cases, you’re working with people who went right from college to grad school to a comparatively cushy tenure-track job. They never cleaned public bathrooms or made sub sandwiches or kept the checkout line moving at Kohl’s during the holiday rush. They’ve never really had a boss per se, in the conventional sense—a person at whose behest you put in work, within a hierarchy that’s not based on publications or successful applications for research funding. They’ve also never really had coworkers—equally beholden to that boss—who they have to consider, and support, and work alongside collaboratively. And it shows. 

(This is, of course, an oversimplification; there are tons of professors who are considerate and kind, whether or not they’ve trudged through the trenches of customer service. But the vibe of a workplace is often defined by its most problematic inhabitants.)

Candidates sometimes get a bit uneasy at this point in the conversation, and struggle to give a response that reassures me that they’ll thrive in academia. But when you, Librarian, get a question about how you deal with entitlement, rules-ignoring, or other frustrating behavior? You’ll just point to your extensive experience in childcare with a smile. I can already hear you and the interviewer sharing a chuckle. But it’s deeper than that: managing both information and personalities in a service register—and thinking about how to align those things—is legitimately a significant part of your professional training. 

Even if working in higher ed sounds awful to you (although I can’t imagine why, given the picture I just painted), I can think of plenty of other options that would be a great match for your history. What about nonprofits—or even for-profits—that support children’s programming, education, or childcare? Your expertise will help you understand what the folks on the front lines are doing while you remain safely behind a laptop, protected from projectile toys and errant bodily effluvia.

Your archives training could also generate some leads—libraries aren’t the only places who need someone to dig through their holdings and impose some order upon them. I used to work with someone who helped the NYPD organize their vast collection of training films, for example. (I know, ACAB, but isn’t that interesting??) That’s not a job I would’ve imagined existing until we met. Who knows what similarly unlikely listings might pop up if you search for terms like “records” or related keywords on job sites?

I feel positive about your prospects because—even if you feel a bit lost at the moment—I see you making some very smart assessments about your next move. You recognize that you’re at risk of burning out if you keep working as a childcare provider or public-facing librarian, especially given the imminent changes in your personal life. As someone who recently became a parent myself, I can tell you that having a kid is fantastic and it doesn’t have to derail your career by any means, but it’s a safe bet that you’ll be more physically and mentally exhausted than usual in the aftermath, especially for the first few years as you adjust. I’m happy to see that you’re taking the opportunity for a clear-eyed assessment about what you need from your professional life as well. Too often, training for a particular role makes people feel like that position is a part of their identity, such that they can’t or won’t see the way it’s destroying them, or that better possibilities exist. It takes fortitude to make that leap away from the familiar.

As for the “hodgepodge” of your resume, let’s reframe that: think of it more as a curated collage. As a younger version of me once said, “a resume is not a deposition on everything you did for money during a particular period of time—you can omit anything that detracts from your strength as a candidate.” Your job history might tell a certain story, but you can pick what skills and responsibilities you choose to highlight and ensure that your cover letter narrates the ways that your background is aligned with what’s required for a given position. And while your eclectic resume might be different from the one a typical candidate submits, that just means you have things to offer that the other applicants don’t. True, it takes some creativity to present that background in a way that appeals to hiring managers—but fortunately I have it on good authority that you’re better than the average person at wrangling complex sets of information.

Even as you seek out, and eventually get, a job that’s further afield from your education, you can also continue looking for jobs in archives and libraries that seem to have the work/life balance you’re looking for. Testing out a pays-the-bills job for a year or two while you maintain a background search for something better is…how a vast majority of people manage their professional lives. There are definitely worse ways to go about it.

As I close out this column, let me give you some very belated Congratulations!! on all the big positive developments in your life and the other exciting things on the horizon. It feels like you’re at the perfect stage to rethink your career, and I wish you all the luck in the world as you figure out what’s next for you and your family.

Courtney C.W. Guerra chose the pseudonym “Businesslady” even though she’s spent over a decade as a writer and editor in humanities academia. She’s the author of the career guide Is This Working? (Simon & Schuster 2017) as well as work-advice columns for some of the internet’s finest defunct websites. You can find her writing on her website and send her a tip if you’re so inclined—but if you bought or recommended her book, that would make her happy too.

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